Environmental Hazards and Public Schools

By Edwin C. Darden

Legally speaking, public school boards and superintendents have a daunting responsibility to protect students from harm -- regardless of the source.

Environmental hazards should be high on the school safety list yet the much-overlooked, silent, sometimes odorless and colorless enemy too often thrives and can impose lifelong health effects. It therefore behooves school leaders to be both intentional and vigilant in monitoring the air, water, land, and chemicals that come in contact with students, employees, and visitors.

Common wisdom applies: Better safe than sorry.

This column focuses on the air people breathe, a particularly vexing subject.

In December 2008, USA TODAY published a series of articles about industrial hazards and schools. The eight-month, groundbreaking investigation was called “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.” It concluded that many children in the United States attend school buildings near environmental hazards and regularly inhale tainted air.

The legal consequences for school boards range from personal injury lawsuits to the prospect of government demands for costly building cleanup for public health reasons. However, those and other hassles can be avoided by school boards that exercise the Three Cs -- care, caution, and common sense. 

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